[INTERVIEW] Antoine Heuty, founder of Ulula, s software that allows workers to alert their employers about unsafe working conditions
We profiled Antoine Heuty, an alum of Sciences Po’s public affairs program and founder of Ulula. Heuty talked about his company, and provided insights on labor rights, international development, and social enterprises.
Many graduates of Sciences Po’s public affairs program go on to pursue careers in government and politics. Antoine Heuty, an alum, took his skills to international development and human rights instead.
Heuty is the founder of Ulula, a software that allows workers to alert their employers about unsafe working conditions. It’s currently used by more than 20 large industry leaders in sectors as diverse as natural resources, agriculture, and technology as well as the governments of Canada and Peru. These companies use it across the world, including in China, Brazil, India or the Democratic Republic of the Congo,
Ulula’s reach is above half a million and will reach a million in 2020.
His path to founding Ulula began with work on energy and natural resources, and for the UN Development Program.
“I wanted to focus my energy a lot on changing government behavior, and second I was also focusing on one piece of the action, which was the transparency. And I realized working on the ground that people didn’t care about transparency per se. What they cared about was can I have a decent job, can I teach, can I feed myself and my family.”
He also realized that sustainable change required empowering individuals and communities to have greater agency over their lives.
“Rather than preach something that may or may not resonate with the people of interest I should stop preaching and stop lecturing and do something that’s far more practical.”
The 2013 Rana Plaza Factory collapse, which occurred around the time of Ulula’s founding, put a fine point on the importance of his efforts. Heuty also cites the collapse of a dam in Brumandinho, Brazil last December as a sign of the ongoing challenges in managing social and environmental risks. He notes that these incidents, although they took place in different countries and different industries, show a common failure to listen to the warnings that workers had provided about their conditions prior to the tragedies.
He explains Ulula’s mission as a way to prevent more tragedies like these from happening: “What we are doing is we are changing the ability of workers to safely and more directly and in real time report problems.”
Ulula’s success in this endeavor depends on the company’s ability to listen to people for input and to turn feedback into actionable analytics. This poses a challenge for solving a problem as widespread and ubiquitous as unsafe working conditions. “It’s not only something that’s happening in Africa. It’s also in New York City, and Paris, and other places,” Heuty notes.
That tool has to be versatile enough to be useful across different industries, environments, and countries. This is for Heuty one of the main challenges that his company faces. That Ulula is a social enterprise also comes with its own difficulties. “We want to do well and do good at the same time,” he says.
Initially it was difficult to find the capital to launch Ulula, but now that it’s more established it’s easier to find partners. Heuty says that while the ecosystem for social enterprises is maturing, there still remains progress to be made toward identifying promising businesses early on.
His time at Sciences Po prepared him for that environment, though. “Nothing has quite compared to that in the consequent education that I received,” he says.
Crucially, he learned how to work on teams and deal with stressful situations, two skills that he’s found valuable today.
“I was on the rugby team at Sciences Po, and they are still my friends today…I think these are probably the experiences for me of how you tackle either the stressful challenges that you have or the more practical ways of working as a team and working effectively and overcoming differences.”